When The Walking Dead was announced, it didn’t seem like a sure thing; for those unfamiliar with the fandom surrounding the comics, it even seemed passé. At the prestige-cable home of Mad Men, could a show about zombies be a hit? The answer, fans will tell you, is yes, because it’s not a show about zombies, but rather a show about people. Those people just happen to kill zombies. At the time of its announcement, it seemed that the show’s spin-off, Fear the Walking Dead, would also fall into that category. And it does — even more than its source material.
Fear‘s six-episode first season began with the characters in disbelief of the pestilence and military aggression around them, and ended with them boarding a yacht to flee. In the second season, they get even farther from shore, and it becomes clear: this show’s writers are desperately trying to avoid making it about zombies. It’s about family, tradition, love. It’s about grief, trauma, humility, and redemption. It’s about everything but shambling death, and because of that it’s quickly overtaken in quality its mother show and the comics from which it spawned.
This opinion could very well be a reaction to The Walking Dead‘s criminally abusive finale and its preceding season, which did nothing but tease that finale. It also might have to do with fatigue brought on by the monotony of TWD‘s landscape. The sun and ocean that set the first two episodes of Fear‘s second season act as injections of vitamin C. But it’s not just the setting that refreshes; it’s the characters, too, who are given more to do than just survive.
Addict Nick (Frank Dillane) is facing redemption, and deciding whether or not he’s worthy of it. His mother, Madison (Kim Dickens), is coming to terms with her urge to save, while her husband, Travis (Cliff Curtis), is coming to terms with his own urge to do the opposite. Travis’ son, Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie), is embracing his anger over the Season 1 death of his mother, while Madison’s daughter, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), grieves her lost boyfriend.
There’s also the case of Strand (Colman Domingo), who could be this show’s Rick analog, only he’s too interesting. This season he continues being enigmatic and rich while looking to enact a plot that has nothing to do with zombies, which is the kind of thing that sorely needs to happen on TWD. It’s as if, in the original show, Robert Kirkman and his writers have forgotten that, even in the most dire of situations, people do weird, awful shit that doesn’t involve morbidity or torture. With this series, they’ve remembered: not every curiosity has to be rotten, not every whispered plan must concern munitions.
Colman Domingo as Victor Strand. Photo Credit: Richard Foreman, Jr/AMC
In comparison with the one-note character arcs of TWD, Fear‘s writing is generous. The actors here, with few exceptions, also trounce the cement-faced posture of everyone on the original series. Dillane is especially compelling, his early Johnny Depp swagger morphing into an addict’s squirrelly dependability, at least when it comes to sniffing out hiding spots. I can’t remember the last time a bit of acting on TWD made me want to give someone an award; mostly, my eyes roll at the self-seriousness of it all.
That’s the world Kirkman has created and must inhabit with TWD, which somehow grows visually darker in each season (or maybe that’s just my TV). And so it seems Kirkman has embraced the freedom of Fear by creating an actual story of people, rather than a story of zombie killers. He and his defenders will claim that TWD and its source material have always been about the people, and they’re right. It is about the people — mostly about how awful they are. In his South-set series, all of the characters are peaches, though heavily bruised and eaten through by worms. With his Californians, he’s harvesting characters that might as well be citrus, all resilience on the outside and juicy complexity underneath.
Gratitude is owed to AMC, because it’s a miracle they’re giving these guys time to ripen. Fear‘s truncated first season wasn’t well received, and seemed mostly to be a way of filling the void left by Mad Men and Breaking Bad while further ingratiating Kirkman. It smelled like a ratings ploy, an easy way to feed fans more gore, but the show’s been bucking that expectation since the premiere. And if this was a grab at ratings, it failed miserably: the first season’s finale lost 30% of the viewers who had tuned in for the premiere — after only five episodes had aired. In the context of the first two episodes of Fear‘s second season, TWD‘s cliffhanger makes perfect sense. Kirkman doesn’t want to turn Fear into TWD, and perhaps he’s doing whatever it takes to guarantee he doesn’t have to, by continuing to make TWD a cash cow for the network.
It’ll be interesting to see how the show develops in the weeks that follow. There’s a great chance that this’ll devolve into gore porn, too, as it is Kirkman’s world, and these characters are just living in it. What will be more interesting to see is whether fans decide to give the show a second chance. The reaction to TWD‘s cliffhanger and breezy approach to death might encourage fanboys to give the relatively zombie-free Fear a second shot. And they should.